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Thayer Vietnam: “Reform or Die”

Thayer Vietnam: “Reform or Die”

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An analysis of the prospects for political reform in Vietnam with a focus on the centers of power, the anti-coruption campaign, crackdown on internet bloggers, economic problems and foreign policy.
An analysis of the prospects for political reform in Vietnam with a focus on the centers of power, the anti-coruption campaign, crackdown on internet bloggers, economic problems and foreign policy.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Jul 07, 2012
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Background Briefing:
Vietnam: “Reform o
r
Die”
 Carlyle A. ThayerJuly 5, 2012
[client name deleted]Q1. At a recent party convention, party members announced that the CPV should
“Reform or die”, what has the CPV done to try implementing this new sloga
n, has itdone much in terms of liberalization or democratization?
ANSWER: “Reform or die” was a slogan first heard in the 1970s when Vietnam’s
Soviet-styled system of state planning failed badly in distributing goods and servicesto the peasants and urba
n workers. “Reform” in Vietnam does no
t mean liberaldemocracy or even tentative steps towards democratization. It means adjustmentsto the socialist economic and one-party political systems to keep the current regimein power. Party delegates were mainly focused on how to end widespread endemic
corruption which has been identified as the main threat to the party’s political
legitimacy. And they were also focused on the state-owned sector which is privilegedby special loans and inflated land prices. Reform of state-owned enterprises hasstalled, and large state-owned conglomerates, such as the national ship buildinggroup, Vinashin, and the national shipping line, Vinalines, are badly in debt, overdiversified in their activities, and rife with corruption.
“Reform or die” in the currentcontext means getting Vietnam’s internal house in order, especially its economy, so
Vietnam can compete profitably in the global market place.
 
Q2. What are the main power centers in Vietnam? Are they held by provincial partymembers, the army or the government? How diffuse is power in this country? Howdoes it affect the political scene?
 
ANSWER: Vietnam’s power centers are given bloc representation on the party
Central Committee and these sectors (as I label them) have been consistentlyrepresented since 1982. There are four power centers: the party apparatus itself including the Secretariat and various Central Committee commissions; the stateapparatus divided between the Government (Cabinet) and the National Assembly;the armed forces; and provincial government. There is a dynamic tension betweenwielders of power at the center (national level
 –
Hanoi) and local level (fiveindependent municipalities and the provinces). Party and state leaders at the center
have to deal with “independent kingdoms” at local level. This means that the
application of national law may sometimes be evaded. One of the best examples of 
the dynamic tension relates to the commitment by Vietnam’s government leaders to
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
 
2
the United States to respect freedom of religion including the halt to forcerenunciation of religion. Despite national laws and decrees local officials are still ableto find a pretext to suppress independent religious movements such as theProtestant house church movement in the Central Highland and the Hmong ethnicminority Christian movement in the north western provinces.
 
Q3. Who is more of a reformist? Is it the Prime MInister or the President? And how isthis affecting the country?
 
ANSWER: Both the prime minister and the president were party leaders in the southand Ho Chi Minh City in particular. They promoted economic reforms that permittedprivate enterprise to flourish and drew in foreign investment. The differencesbetween them are more personality rather than policy clashes. Nguyen Tan Dunghas broken the mould of the collective leadership and emerged as a quasi-popularleader. He has a high media profile both in the country and abroad. Dung is in hissecond term as prime minister. Truong Tan Sang is relatively new to the post of statepresident, having been appointed in 2011. Prior to that he headed the partySecretariat. Sang and some allies led the charge against the Prime Minister during hisfirst term in office when Dung
s economic policies led to very high inflation.
Vietnam’s growth prospects were furthe
r affected by the 1997-98 global financial
crisis. I am not sure “reform:” quite captures the political dynamics at play. Sang and
his cohort were concerned that if economic policies were not altered there would besocial unrest. So the Prime Minister was reined in by the Politburo. Vietnam adoptedan orthodox stimulus package and weathered the global crisis.
 
The main political dynamic is that the state president wants more power and to beinvolved in a greater number of issues. Sang and Nguyen Sinh Hung, the Chair of the
National Assembly, both share an interest in “checking and balancing” the prime
minister.Q4. I read that the new Corruption B
oard was now headed by party? Isn’t that a bad
sign?
 
ANSWER: When Nguyen Tan Dung was first elected prime minister he set up an Anti-Corruption Steering Committee with himself as head. He pushed all the buttons tospeed up police investigations and judicial proceedings against those charged withmajor corruption. Over time the rubber hit the road, friction developed, and theanti-corruption impetus slowed. The prime minister has had to bear responsibilityfor massive corruption scandals in two large government conglomerates over whichhe has direct oversight. Late last year he went before the National Assembly andaccepted personal
responsibility for Vinashin’s default on overseas loans. This year
he is under pressure to accept responsibility for appointing an official, previouslydismissed, to head Vinalines.
The prime minister’s inability to get a grip on corruption has
resulted in the partyremoving him from his Steering Committee and placing party appointees in control.One problem in cracking down on major corruption is that it involves political alliesof the top leaders.
 
3
Q5. Since 2011, there has been a crackdown on internet users and activists, thegovernment is planning new constraining laws on the use of internet. How serious isthat issue in Vietnam?
 
ANSWER: From the point of view of security authorities and party conservatives, theuse of the Internet by bloggers and social networks to raise political issues andcriticize the government is a major threat to their ability to control information andits dissemination. The Internet led to the emergence of a national pro-democracycoalition network known as Blocs 8406, named after its founding date 8
th
April 2006.Key activists were arrested and imprisoned. Bloggers became active in a major socialmovement opposed to bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, a pet project of theprime minister and involving Chinese investment. More recently, bloggers and socialactivists have begun agitating against China over the South China Sea dispute. Thistaps a deep vein of anti-Chinese nationalism. The party-state feels threatenedbecause this undermines nationalism as the basis of legitimacy for one-party rule.Despite the fact that the US has repeatedly warned Vietnam that their bilateralrelationship cannot go to the next level unless human rights issues are addressed,Vietnam continues to crackdown on bloggers. In other words, the issue is viewed bysome party conservatives as so serious they are willing to jeopardize ties with the US(and thus Vietnam
s ability to counter balance China) in order to meet the internalthreat. The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later remain vivid lessons that one-party socialism isvulnerable to change. The later
colour revolutions
and Arab Spring only adds tothese concerns.
 
Q6. How well has Vietnam dealt with the economic slowdown and rising inflation?Do you think that economic pressure might push people into the streets similarly towhat the Arab world has witnessed?
 
ANSWER: Vietnam has had mixed results. It has a reasonably high economic growthrate, just under 6%, and inflation has been brought down from a high of 23% in2008. Vietnam exports to markets in Europe and North America that have ceased to
grow at previous rates. Inflation mainly affects the urbanites and the party’s new
rich as well as state cadres. Grievances have built up over continual traffic jams,pollution, power brown outs and the cost of living. But there is no real evidence thatthose dependent on the regime will take to the streets. They have benefitted from
the system. The system is not all that oppressive from their point of view. Vietnam’s
political system brings about an orderly generational transition. Party and state
leaders must retire at 65 and can only stay in high office for two terms. Vietnam’s
regime propagandists latch on to unrest overseas as an object lesson to their citizens
 –
too much change will lead to chaos and instability and undermine their hard wonliving conditions.
 
Q7. How much has Vietnam’s foreign policy evolved in recent years and more
particularly towards the US?
 
ANSWER: Taking a very broad view, Vietnam’s foreign policy has changed radically.
Vietnam once had a binary view of the world
 –
the forces of socialism versus
imperialism. It was a do or die struggle captured in the slogan “who will win?” After
the collapse of the Soviet Union Vietnam adopted a policy of diversifying and

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